SCIENCEFICTION, above all, is literature of the mind; imagination is central to this comparatively young discipline. So transforming science fiction from the medium of print into that of film presents problems: How do you capture wild visions and put them on the screen? There have been a few successful creative unions: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick again in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, but the list remains short.
A Boy And His Dog, the first film to show at the new Galeria cinema, is based on Harlan Ellison's Nebula award-winning novella of the same name. The L.Q. Jones film version fails from the start; it's bad science fiction as well as bad cinematography. Ellison's story does not lend itself to the camera as there are immediate and plaguing flaws in adaptation. A Boy And His Dog is set in 2024, in an America ravaged and torn by the nuclear warheads of the Third World War. The survivors, either alone (solos) or in marauding groups (roverpaks), eke out a savage existence on the crater-ridden surface, foraging for canned food and gang-raping the remaining females. Aiding them in their search for food and sex are telepathic dogs, equal in intelligence to humans. Below the surface, in cavernous air-raid shelters, are the remains of Middle America, existing in ante-bellum middle class splendor. Ellison's novella, and the film, focus on the adventures of a young solo named Vic and his telepathic dog in this topsy-turvy world.
Blood, the dog, is no Rin Tin Tin. He curses like a trooper, puns, philosophizes, teaches, and even conjugates Latin verbs. In print, Ellison creates the character intelligently enough that the reader comes to believe, empathise and imagine him. But on the screen it doesn't work. The camera strips away that imaginative process and instead offers a voice-over for Blood's thoughts, making him sound like a disembodied canine version of Mr. Ed, spouting bits of arcane knowledge. If it sounds absurd, it is, and with the premise of A Boy And His Dog destroyed, the film slowly collapses.
THERE ARE OTHER ELEMENTS contributing to this collapse. The novella, actually a padded short story, moves quickly because Ellison writes in a clean, brief, violent prose. In A Boy And His Dog, Jones slows down the action, lengthening scenes and drawing out the conclusion with wasted footage. Jones also films the blasted landscapes and ruins of the future listlessly where a Kubrick would exploit the opportunity to examine the new world with camera work.
"I haven't been laid in six weeks," Vic (Don Johnson) announces in the opening scene, and so he and Blood set out to find a victim. Vic, dressed like a Confederate soldier after Gettysburg and toting a carbine, is finally rewarded when Blood senses a female with his telepathic powers. They track her to an abandoned house and defend her against a roverpak in a boring, senseless and long drawn out shoot-out. Quilla June (Susanne Benton) then seduces Vic before he can rape her and manages to lure him to her home downunder. Quilla's community, a new Topeka, is composed of survivors convinced that America's Golden Age was in 1900 and determined to reproduce it in underground safety. Dissenters are executed by a humanoid robot dressed in overalls who snaps necks with his huge hands. Not too surprisingly, Vic doesn't fit into the Topekan society with its concern for law and order at any cost, including that of social and physical sterility. In the end, he returns to the surface with Quilla June to face the dangers of what is, to him, a saner world.
THERE ARE some funny stretches in A Boy And His Dog, usually when Vic and Blood are trading insults or jokes. In the midst of the opening credits, Blood delivers a hilarious off-color limerick about a man named Lodge and the back seat of a Dodge. At one point in the film, Blood, who is tutoring Vic in American history, asks him to recite the list of American presidents, from Truman on. "Eisenhower, Truman," Vic starts and corrects himself, "Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, (pause), Nixon, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy...." Otherwise, much of the humor is badly paced.
Some of the strength behind Ellison's vision of the 21st century remains in the movie. It is a vision not too removed from the present, which adds to its power: rape poses a constant threat in the United States of 1975, food is becoming scarce in many areas of the world, the desire for a return to a Golden Age of order surfaces in the editorials of small town newspapers, and the possibility of nuclear war and its aftermath has been a reality since Hiroshima. Unfortunately, the other strength of Ellison's novella, his brilliant characterization of Blood, becomes the downfall of the movie.
A GREAT DEAL of highly respected science fiction that has made its way into mainstream culture would also fare poorly on film, including "classics" like Frank Herbert's Dune and Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. (How would you portray "groking?" Who would accept a giant sandworm in a serious film?) Some of the finest science fiction on film was specifically written for that medium. Ironically, Ellison himself is responsible for some of the better television screenplays: "Soldier" on Rod Sterling's Twilight Zone, a chilling preview of a war-wracked future through the eyes of a genetically engineered warrior, fleeing his opponents through time travel; and an excellent script for Star Trek, "A City At the Edge of Forever."
Sadly, mainstream movie producers aren't so willing to gamble with original science fiction screenplays, however, preferring to adapt novels and short stories. So until the Ellisons and Herberts are encouraged to create for film, there will be dog days for science fiction on the screen.